David Adams, writing in today's Irish Times, argues that "if nationalism is serious about a united Ireland, it has a duty to explain to unionists precisely what it has in mind". On one level he is quite correct, of course, but on a deeper level he is wrong.
Only if nationalists are trying to entice unionists into 'their' state can they explain what they have in mind. But, as Adams says, "those who believe that, if it comes to it, the six Northern counties could simply be tacked on to the Republic, and unionists would fit neatly in with a 32-county version of how things are in the South at present, are kidding themselves".
Precisely. And that is why Adams is wrong.
Thinking nationalists are not proposing that the 6 counties are simply absorbed into the larger state, like East Germany was absorbed by West Germany a generation ago. Unthinking nationalists, aided and abetted, it has to be said, by deliberately mischievous unionists, may talk of reunification as a sort of '26-annexing-6' scenario, but this cannot be how it happens.
Adams complains that Sinn Féin "hasn’t given the first thought or care to what would result if they did manage to bring almost a million reluctant unionists into a united Ireland". But that is not actually a bad thing – on the contrary, if Sinn Féin tried to dictate what shape and form the new 32 County Ireland would have, then unionists and others could justifiably criticise them for dictating a pre-determined outcome without listening to the voices of unionists, and indeed the 90% of Ireland's people who do not vote for Sinn Féin!
Nationalists cannot tell unionists what unionism will want in a united Ireland – only the unionists can do that. For nationalists to say to unionists 'you want links to Britain, so we'll agree to an East-West ministerial council' would be utterly presumptuous, as it may not come close to what unionists actually want. But being nationalists, nationalists cannot truly understand what unionists would settle for – especially as they keep repeating, mantra-like, that all they want is to remain in the UK. That mantra does not help to answer the question of 'what do you want, though, if you cannot stay in the UK?'
While many people have attachments to particular aspects of one or the other state (Adams mentions the NHS as a potential hurdle), or aspirations for things that are not yet a reality in either, the eventual outcome can only be arrived at by negotiation, compromise, deal-making, arguments about resource allocation, rights, duties and responsibilities. No one group – unionists, nationalists, southerners, northerners, can or should try to impose their view of things in entirety. Everything ultimately could be subject to trade-offs, and no-one at this stage should be expected to reveal their bargaining positions or the strengths of their attachments to one or other issue.
Take, for example, the flag of the future 32 County state. If nationalists at this stage admitted that they have only a weak attachment to the Tricolour, and would be prepared to trade it for agreement elsewhere, then unionists would immediately 'bank' this 'concession', and its value would be reduced to nothing.
The problem, at this stage, is that negotiations cannot start. Adams complains that nationalists have not set out their initial position, yet he knows that in the absence of any desire to bargain, unionists will simply parody that initial position and exaggerate it to add weight to their refusal to even discuss the nature of a reunified Ireland. Only when unionists realise that they must bargain, will they even approach the table – but even then reluctantly, negatively and obstructively. This is why, as Adams points out, Sinn Féin's strategy "involves chipping away at the morale of unionists in the hope that sufficient numbers will tire of the hassle, allowing the rest to be dragged over a 50 per cent-plus-one line" – because only when that 50% line is crossed does the real negotiation begin. Until that point, unionists will continue to refuse to discuss the issue.
While Adams' frustration is understandable, he would have been better employed explaining what unionists want (after all, he remains one), and encouraging his 'tribe' to engage in the conversation. After all, no discussion of a post-reunification Ireland commits unionists to anything – only the outcome of a border poll can do that – and that outcome will happen regardless of whether the conversation has started or not. It would be much better for all of us if it has started, and if both sides engage in it honestly.